SPRINGFIELD — The House Judiciary Criminal Committee on Saturday spent more than three hours debating a slew of new criminal sentencing reforms that supporters hope will be tacked onto an omnibus criminal justice reform bill.
The reforms included measures beyond the scope of a 611-page omnibus bill – contained in an amendment to House Bill 163 – that was discussed for several hours in the state Senate on Saturday afternoon as well.
Rep. Justin Slaughter, D-Chicago, presented the new provisions during a subject matter hearing on the reform package, which has faced pushback from some law enforcement groups.
The new reforms discussed Saturday in the House committee include reclassifying drug possessions from felonies to misdemeanors, providing judges with discretion to impose lesser sentences on some nonviolent offenses that require mandatory minimum sentences, and allowing for certain misdemeanors to be punishable by a ticket rather than arrest.
Another topic not yet included in the omnibus bill but discussed during the House committee was modernizing the state’s mandatory supervised release program.
The House committee also discussed abolishing the cash bail system in Illinois, and amending the state’s felony murder law, which allows for individuals who participated in a felony to be charged with murder if someone is killed during the commission of the felony. Those two proposals are already included in the omnibus bill.
Slaughter said the sentencing reforms are meant to reduce the number of prisoners incarcerated in the state.
“It’s important to know the aim and the intent of these provisions are to try to prevent individuals from touching the system and to prevent individuals from further touching the system,” he said.
Rep. Terri Bryant, R-Murphysboro, said she was worried House members and the public would not have enough time to evaluate the language of the new provisions, which had not been provided at the subject matter hearing.
“I’m not trying to be a jerk about this but there’s a lot of stuff being added and when are we going to see it?” Bryant asked. “Since (the language of the bill) is not here yet, the general public wasn’t made aware that this hearing is going on. So, the general public hasn’t had the opportunity to weigh in and now we’re saying there is going to be additional stuff added to this.”
“They’re not getting to even to hear what’s going on today, unless they happen to see one of our social media posts,” she said.
Slaughter said any new language would be presented to the committee for review before it goes to a vote. The committee, along party line vote, passed a shell bill out of committee that could be used as a vehicle for the omnibus bill.
In the Senate, where more than a dozen stakeholders testified, including representatives of law enforcement, the Illinois Municipal League, the state Bar Association and others, Republicans also questioned the transparency behind the bill’s push in the five-day lame duck session.
“This is an incredibly lengthy piece of legislation that has really just been put before us here in the last matter of hours or days at best,” Sen. Jason Barickman, R-Bloomington, said upon questioning the bill’s sponsor.
Democrats and backers of the bills countered that many of the proposals have been discussed conceptually for years, although the bill language was only recently filed.
While the House testimony focused on sentencing reforms, the Senate committee covered the full scope of the bill, which included policing reforms and other measures. That testimony was still ongoing as of 5 p.m. after beginning four hours earlier.
Drug possession reclassification
One proposed reform would make all simple drug possession offenses a Class A misdemeanor, instead of a Class 4 felony offense, but would not apply to offenses of delivery or manufacturing drugs.
Ben Ruddell, criminal justice policy attorney for the American Civil Liberties Union, testified that the new provision would not decriminalize drugs, but a maximum sentence would be reduced to one year due to the lowered offense.
Ruddell said the House Criminal Judiciary Committee in 2019 passed a similar proposal in House Bill 2291, which did not get a vote by the full House.
He said this policy would apply to all street drugs, including heroin and methamphetamines, and the threshold limits for the amounts would vary by drug.
“Nobody should ever be sent to jail or prison for the purpose of getting treatment,” Ruddell said.
Rep. Patrick Windhorst, a Metropolis Republican and former Massac County state’s attorney, said the provision could encourage drug users to flout the law.
“One of the fears that I have is, there are individuals who do not want treatment unless they are facing some consequence. It has been my experience that a Class A misdemeanor is not going to be a consequence,” he said.
Rep. Kelly Cassidy, D-Chicago, said the bill is not intended to condone drug use.
“No one is saying that drug use is OK. What we’re saying here is that addiction is a public health issue, not a criminal justice issue, and it’s time to take it out of the criminal justice system,” Cassidy said.
Mandatory minimum changes
The committee heard from Todd Belcore, executive director of the nonprofit Social Change, about the provision to give judges discretion in sentencing certain nonviolent offenses that require a mandatory minimum.
The House passed a similar measure in 2019 but it was not taken up in the Senate.
Belcore said the proposal gives judges the opportunity to issue sentences below the mandatory minimum for individuals charged with offenses such as simple drug possession, retail theft or driving on a suspended license due to unpaid tickets.
“It also prevents taxpayers from spending billions of dollars over a period of time on people who do not pose a risk to public safety,” he said.
He said the measure also requires that judges state on the record a reason for imposing a lesser sentence.
Ticket eligible misdemeanors
A provision not yet included in the omnibus would allow law enforcement to issue tickets for Class B and Class C misdemeanors, which are the lowest class of misdemeanors. Brendan Shiller, partner at Shiller, Preyar, Jarad and Samuels, said the proposal would change the criminal statute to make these misdemeanor offenses ineligible for arrest.
Currently, under Illinois criminal law, individuals convicted of Class B misdemeanors face no more than six months in jail. The punishment for Class C misdemeanors cannot exceed 30 days in jail.
Trespassing and loitering are examples of Class C misdemeanors, while gambling and prostitution are examples of Class B misdemeanors.
Shiller said multiple studies have shown that if a teenage male commits a nonviolent misdemeanor and is simply warned and let go, that individual is several times less likely to commit a violent offense as an adult, compared to a teenage male who is arrested and processed through the court system.
“And what we’re really trying to do, though, is get to the heart, that having police officers, having those vital limited resources spent on things like trespass, loitering, gambling, those types of offenses, not only is it not helpful, in the end it actually becomes harmful. And we want those resources, those limited resources, really focused on the more violent issues that really create harm.”
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